Shutdown Fever: Is the House in Play Now?

by Stuart Rothenberg October 9, 2013 · 10:03 AM EDT

On Sunday, a Huffington Post headline screamed what most Democrats were hoping: “GOP In Grave Danger Of Losing House In 2014, PPP Polls Show.” Of course, anything coming from Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling and Political Action, which paid for the surveys, must be taken with at least a grain of salt.

PPP isn’t your typical polling firm. Its surveys often are intended to boost Democratic recruiting, fundraising or prospects. In this case, the “polls” were almost certainly commissioned to create a narrative about the political repercussions of the shutdown and the nature of the midterms.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the PPP memo accompanying the results, written by Jim Williams, observes, “The surveys challenge the conventional wisdom that gerrymandering has put the House out of reach for Democrats.”

Not surprisingly, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out multiple fundraising emails in the hours after reports of the PPP polls surfaced, and dozens of Democratic candidates and liberal groups did the same.

That’s the standard modus operandi these days on both the right and the left: have a sympathetic media organization or polling firm assert some alleged finding, and then have fellow travelers cite the initial report to try to raise cash or create momentum. It is becoming (yawn — excuse me) a little trite.

Anyway, the Huffington Post reported that of the 24 House districts polled, “Republican incumbents are behind in 17 of the districts analyzed.” Of course, the “polls” did not include head-to-head ballot tests of likely nominees (even though the surveys could have included candidate names in many contests), but instead relied on a messy question that was part “re-elect” and part “generic ballot.” The results are of little or no use because that is not the choice voters will face on Election Day.

Moreover, at least five of the 17 Republicans who are “losing” either have no serious opposition or have less-than-top-tier opponents at this point: Steve King (Iowa’s 4th District), Andy Barr (Kentucky’s 6th), Kerry Bentivolio (Michigan’s 11th), Patrick Meehan (Pennsylvania’s 7th) and Sean P. Duffy (Wisconsin’s 7th). Bentivolio may not survive a GOP primary.

Each PPP survey asked seven substantive questions and four demographic ones. Some of the questions were loaded, and as I have noted previously in dissecting PPP polls, the “more likely/less likely” question is a horrible one to use in surveys because it tends to measure the underlying attitude rather than gather useful information about an issue’s eventual importance as a vote cue.

PPP conducted a “second ballot” after additional survey questions gave more information to respondents and allegedly found four more Republicans “losing.” But as David Nir of Daily Kos Elections wisely noted in writing up the results:

Informed ballots such as these, though, must always be viewed with caution. They represent an ideal environment where one side is able to widely disseminate its preferred message, without pushback or interference from the other side. In other words, a scenario nothing like what you encounter in the real world.

But picking apart these automated PPP polls — and there are many questions about the samples, the questions and the interpretations — misses the key point: Surveys conducted in the first few days of the shutdown have a very short shelf life, since it’s dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions about voter behavior a year from now while in the middle of a media frenzy.

Is the House in play now? Of course not. My newsletter’s most recent race-by-race assessment, completed just days before the shutdown began, found that the most likely overall outcome next year is a small gain for one of the parties. At this point in the cycle, there is no compelling evidence that a Democratic wave is developing, which is what the party would need to net the necessary 17 House seats to win the majority.

That’s not to say it can’t happen, of course. If the shutdown (and, possibly, inaction on raising the debt ceiling) creates a severe economic downturn for which Republicans get most of the blame, anything could happen. But there are a lot of assumptions in that scenario.

If the 1995-96 shutdown is any guide, the political fallout from the current legislative stalemate is likely to be limited. According to the Brookings Institution’s “Vital Statistics on Congress“ (p. 54, see note e), Democrats gained nine House seats in 1996, only about half of what they need next year to win control. Moreover, the nation’s current polarization and the last wave of redistricting make it less likely that the current shutdown will result in a dramatic change in the cycle’s trajectory.

The House is not in play now, and we will need to wait until after the current legislative fights are resolved to see whether the outlook for the 2014 House elections has changed dramatically one way or the other.

The only thing we know right now is that the PPP/ polls are of little value in understanding the electoral landscape a year from now.